End of the Affair
A Film by Neil Jordan
from a novel by Graham Greene
The End of the Affair The new film from director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) from his own screenplay-adaptation of Graham Greene's book, is a melodramatic love-story lifted above it's rather trite plot by stunning performances.
The plot, reduced to Hollywood "high-concept" terms, is basically: boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy regains girl; boy loses girl for good. Variations on the familiar theme include the fact that the girl in this case is already married to someone else, that the boy loses her the first time to a "higher power," and that when he loses her for the second time, its because she dies.
It is a plot that lends itself to a tear-jerking, two-dimensional realization. In Jordan's hands, however, with strong support from three of the finest actors working today, it becomes a poignant meditation on love and loss. If some of the psycho/theological implications of the Greene novel are lost, that is at least partly the price paid for trying to translate the complexities of a novel into a "mass media entertainment."
The plot hinges around Sarah Miles' (Julianne Moore) abrupt ending of her affair with her novelist neighbor Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes). Bendrix, who adopts a worldly pose to cover his loneliness and longing, thinks he has been thrown over capriciously and is deeply hurt by the severing of the emotional connection he feels between them.
Two years later, after a chance encounter, Sarah's unsuspecting husband Henry (Stephen Rea) ironically confides to Bendrix that he thinks Sarah is having an affair. His jealousy aroused, Bendrix hires a Private Investigator to get to the bottom of the situation. Eventually he comes into possession of Sarah's diary, which reveals the real reason for her summary departure.
During their last assignation, during the London blitz of the Second World War, the house they were in took a near hit from a bomb. Bendrix was thrown down a stairwell by the force of the explosion. When Sarah reached him, she found him apparently lifeless. In her panic she prayed to God that he should be restored, promising "to give him up" - renounce her affair - if God would grant her prayer.
Bendrix appears in the doorway, apparently only dazed. He believes he has been knocked unconscious. Sarah believes he has been revived from the dead in answer to her prayer. She realizes the import of the promise she has made, dresses and leaves, intending never to see Bendrix again.
This decision and the theological questions that underlie it are at the heart of Greene's novel. Does God hear us? Does he answer our prayers? Does he hold us to our promises? In Jordan's screenplay, though they are implied, they play a much less central role.
This changes the nature of the story from an exploration of man's relationship to God to an exposition of the nature of relationships. It gives the story a different focus and a different impact. But within the confines of the story Jordan has chosen to tell, he has done a very fine job.
The screenplay is exceptionally spare and under-stated, reminiscent of nothing so much as the great English melodramas of the 1950s. It allows the actors plenty of room to make their points with physical signifiers, with silences, with the expressions of their eyes.
A particular example of this (and one that should be studied by all aspiring actors) is a conversation in a restaurant between Bendrix and Sarah, after they have begun to re-open their relationship. The camera watches Sarah as Bendrix coldly recounts what he sees as her abandonment of him, totally mis-understanding and mis-representing her actions and motives.
Each word bites like a whip-lash, but Moore's Sarah gives no outward sign of what she is suffering. Only some flicker in her eyes gives her away, and this so subtly but compellingly that the scene is painful to watch. This kind of examination of the human psyche, of the tension between trust and fear, love and pain, what is said and what is meant, is the film's greatest accomplishment.
The most difficult scene to translate from book to film must be the moment of Sarah's realization, when Bendrix appears alive. Moore manages to communicate something of the wonder, the fear, and then the despair of that situation, as she realizes the simultaneous restoration and loss of her lover. "Love doesn't end," she tells the dazed Bendrix, "just because we don't see each other." Moore manages to put so much anguish and courage into that line - like a mother trying to reassure a dying child - that it makes the film work.
In the same vein, the character of Henry Miles as created by Stephen Rea is a study in timidity and resignation - "the mass of men," as Thoreau described, who "lead lives of quiet desperation." Rea creates a character who is pitiable and a bit repulsive in his weakness and self-abasement. At the same time, he manages to make us feel Henry's pain, his impotent frustration at what he sees as his inability to change his own despised, lifeless nature.
Fiennes' Maurice Bendrix is a complex combination of masculine egotism and childlike vulnerability. His assumed air of sophistication, in the scene in the restaurant cited above, shows both his selfish blindness and his powerful, sublimated reaction to the magnitude of his own love and pain.
His gentleness towards Henry - a man he has betrayed - illustrates his own identification with the very weaknesses and vulnerabilities he fights to avoid or conceal. The vanity of his jealousy propels him into a voyage of self-discovery that ends with a new level of appreciation for both Henry and Sarah and a new humility.
Moore has received several nominations for best actress awards, including the upcoming Academy Awards. Fiennes turns in a wonderfully subtle and shaded performance, but it is not "showy" enough to get the attention of awards organizations. But the real shame is that Stephen Rea's excellent supporting performance has been overlooked. In a role completely different from anything else he has done, he creates a convincing and compassionate portrait of a pathetic character whose low-key counterpoint to the main characters is pivotal to the film's success.
Jordan has taken this outstanding ensemble and led them to create a balanced and emotionally honest story. Although reflected on objectively the restraint, the respect for appearances and the religious overtones (as well as some of the plot points) may seem labored and artificial in the "anything goes" world of today, what the characters feel (and the actors create) is communicated with such sincerity that it helps us suspend our disbelief and enter into the emotional landscape they inhabit.
Jordan has a lot of experience behind the camera, having made more than a dozen films in the last two decades, and it shows here. The mood of war-time and immediate post-war London is admirably evoked. The charmed and refined world the characters inhabit, safe and secure from the death and destruction around them (with the single profound exception) is painted with a wealth of small but important details.
The design of the film strongly supports its introverted, somewhat claustrophobic mood of self-probing. As one of the audience with whom I saw it remarked, "It's a color movie with no color." And indeed, the deep shadows, the browns, blacks, and grays that are the dominant colors, and the heavy rains or overcast skies almost every time anyone goes outside, create a mood of somber melancholy that underscores the film's final conclusion, the sad fact that all love involves loss, at least here on earth.
To bring a film with such a sobering conclusion to early 21st century audiences is daring. To do it without the cheap sentimentality that made blockbusters out of formulaic tear-jerkers like the execrable Love Story is bold. To succeed at making an intelligent, thoughtful film that honestly probes the emotional lives of fully realized characters, as Jordan has done here, is an accomplishment that deserves admiration and attention.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.